National Column: Conservative race could be crowded

by Chantal Hébert

Depending on the day of the week there are no less than eight and as many as a dozen Conservatives testing the federal leadership waters.

Should they all enter the race to succeed Stephen Harper, this could make next year’s Conservative leadership vote the most unpredictable federal contest in a decade.

Past history suggests that the more crowded the field, the greater the odds that a dark horse will emerge as the unlikely winner.

There were eight candidates on the ballot when Stephane Dion won the Liberal leadership in 2006.

Another four had withdrawn prior to the vote.

Over on the Conservative side, Joe Clark beat 10 rivals for the Tory leadership in 1976.

Neither contest featured a consensual front-runner. Nor does, at this early stage, the campaign to succeed Harper. In contrast with the last Liberal leadership campaign there is no heir apparent to the Conservative throne.

But there are crown princes in the wings.

Two of the leading candidates whose names are circulating have the potential – should they both run – to turn the campaign into a succession battle between the Tory and the Reform branches of the Conservative family.

The first is Peter MacKay, the former leader of the Progressive Conservative party. Based on a January poll, he is the popular choice of Conservative sympathizers, with support spread pretty evenly across the country.

But it is far from certain he wants the job, at least at this juncture. MacKay retired from politics to spend more time with his young family a few months before the election. He has just joined a Toronto law firm. He could decide to take a pass on this campaign, thinking there will be another opportunity to run later on.

It is a rare federal party that does not earn a second mandate in government.

At a minimum, the Conservatives could be looking at almost a decade in opposition. Over a similar period of time, the Liberals disposed of two leaders before Justin Trudeau led them back to office.

Former defence minister Jason Kenney is also said to be mulling his options. His polling numbers are not as impressive as MacKay’s, especially in central Canada, but those results underestimate his actual
strength among the Conservatives members who will vote in the leadership election.

As the top social conservative in the last cabinet, Kenney has strong connections to the religious right.

And his ethnic outreach on behalf of the party has allowed him to build networks within many cultural communities.

But while the Conservative party may be ready to elect a social conservative as its leader, the country may not be so disposed.

The second tier consists of a gaggle of former federal ministers, none of whom could be described as a national household name. Of course, that was also true of Harper when he became leader, and he still beat Paul Martin, albeit only on his second attempt.

Doug Ford – of Toronto municipal fame – and businessman/TV personality Kevin O’Leary complete the list. Neither speaks French fluently or has any federal experience.

Both enjoy as much or more name recognition than most outgoing Harper ministers.

But if that were a major asset, former hockey star Ken Dryden would not have finished a distant runner-up in the 2006 Liberal leadership campaign. He used to top the notoriety charts.

Most of the would-be leadership candidates will be working the corridors of this weekend’s Manning conference in Ottawa, making it a warm-up session for a marathon race that will stretch well into the first half of next year.

Former ministers Tony Clement and Maxime Bernier, MP Michael Chong and O’Leary, will all be hosting so-called meet-and-greet sessions. Kenney, Lisa Raitt, and Kelly Leitch are among the former cabinet members expected at the conference.

So are ex-MPs Brian Jean and Patrick Brown, who lead the official opposition in Edmonton and at Queen’s Park, respectively. By any other name, this could be a class reunion for Harper alumni.

The state of Canada’s conservative movement is the overriding theme of the conference. The fact that this year’s gathering of the clans that make up the Canadian right is bringing together a record number of people who toil in provincial and federal opposition tells that story.

Copyright 2016 – Torstar Syndication Services

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